THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (UK, 1987) ** 3/4
"The Living Daylights" plays cutesy games with in-joke, allusive names: Russian General Leonid (after Brezhnev) Pushkin; General Anatol (after Dobrynin) Gogol ; a professional killer called Necros ("Dead" in Greek); Rosika Miklos (after movie music composer Miklos Rozsa?); Kamran Shah (Vietnam transposed to Afghanistan ?); Colonel Feyador (after filmmaker Feyder, Fyodor Dostoievski, or what?) ; and more. Three female characters are called Linda, Liz, and Ava. My best guess is that the one on the deck may be Ava, whose improbable "real" name is Dulice Liecier.
The movie did keep my interest at first, then steadily began to slide down and away. It did not bore the living daylights out of me,nor did it live up to expectations. Still, the initial interest is sustained by curiosity: how will the new James Bond, Timothy Dalton, stack up against his predecessors? Sean Connery played Bond seven times (1962-1983); George Lazenby, once (1969); Roger Moore seven (1973-1985).
Dalton does nicely, in a different way. Asuming that you want to socialize with actors (not always a wise decision), Connery might be a warm, natural, un-self-important, conciliatory companion. With his healthy,tongue-in-cheek humor, he'd make a pleasant traveling companion. Moore would be a good person to trade quips with during one of those marathon French meals where taking oneself un-seriously, even using steady self-mockery, raise superficiality to the level of an art form.
Dalton promises much as a relatively sober, even serious Bond, who underplays his part and makes minimal concessions to smart-alecky, snobbish remarks about drinks, food, special needs or female flesh. Where the other Bonds reacted to everything with a wink or a witticism, Dalton seems to pause regularly for a split second and look as though he were considering the gravity and the implications of the new moment. Perhaps this comes from his stage experience (it includes Shakespeare).
His Bond is more work than play. Dalton's age is coyly skipped in all the studio releases, but extrapolating from his biography I'd say that the man is about 40. He is more physically fit than Connery or Moore in their later Bond impersonations. Connery went (ages approximate within one year) from age 32 ("Dr. No") to 53 ("Never Say Never Again") doing James Bond. Moore, from 46 to 58. Lazenby was only 30 when "On His Majesty's Secret Service" came out, and certainly seemed fit. But the film was not a hit, unfairly, in my opinion.
Dalton is handsome,but so were the other Bonds.Compared to aging, post-1970s Bonds, his youthful looks contribute a more credible match between heroes and physical exploits. But this is conventional thinking. For many viewers, a younger Bond is an asset, but then, was there not a special kind of satisfaction in seeing Connery and Moore, past their prime, defeating in wiles and action hordes of younger enemies, while their mature sex-appeal attracted, on the screen, so many younger women?
Even if we feel that Timothy Dalton, as a more businesslike, younger, and more thoughtful Bond, rejuvenates and freshens up the series, the movie's structure itself shows signs of age and fatigue. It follows the basic Bond structure: a top, action-filled pre-credit sequence on the rock of Gibraltar,with spectacular stunts and special effects--an introduction that's only semi-relevant to the main film, with a message "Smiert spionom" (Death to Spies) that doesn't connect too coherently to what follows. Then come the blue-chip credits by the constant Bond title-maker, Maurice Binder. And at last the action proper gets going.
It ranges across many locations: Gibraltar, Morocco (played by Morocco), Afghanistan (played by Morocco), Vienna (played by Vienna), Bratislava in Czechoslovakia (played by Vienna), Czechoslovakia (played by Austria), and England (played partly by the Pinewood studios).
The multiheaded plot sprouts subplots, like the Lernean Hydra where each of the nine heads that was cut off was replaced by two more. It involves spies, counter-spies, triple-crosses, scams, KGB defectors, arms dealers, drug merchants, unholy alliances, mixed loyalties, M (Bond's "control), phoney killings, Bond gagdetry by old Q, a new Miss Moneypenny plus many Bondian trappings. Most of this is imaginative. Early on it is quite entertaining, but past the half-way mark, the mechanical succession of chases, stunts, gimmickry and sub-sub-plots become indifferent and confusing.
The twisty screen action and inventiveness pile up so much and so fast that whatever conducting thread there is almost impossible to follow. An excess of everything leads to audience stupor, with a resulting numbing and dumbing of the public. Even within a context of fantasy, there is incoherence in details. When, at the start, Bond attends a Bratislava symphony concert, his tuxedo, in a socialist country like Czechoslovakia, is as unlikely (and attention-getting) as a bikini would be in the House of Commons. Later, in Afghanistan, the regal tent-house of the mujaheddin is strictly out of the films of The 1001 Nights and other oriental dreams of old Hollywood. Some of this may be camp or humor, but then it does not go far enough.
The story itself at first seems to hesitate between a bona fide --even serious -- international spy thriller and a typical Bond affair. This vacillation is not unpleasant to observe as it hints that the makers will add to the film some of the weight lacking in recent Bonds. Yet, that's not how things work out.
The movie eventually goes off in all sorts of flamboyant, arbitrary, for-your-eyes-only directions. The lack of concentration is abetted by the absence of central supervillain out to destroy the world if it doesn't yield to his blackmail. Villainy here is not massive, but rather like a plot subdivision, centerless, with no unifying structure, true development, growth or resolution. It is one long succession of dispersed--albeit well handled and skilfully shot--special situations, with mini-climax following micro-climax. It's like a mountain range of peaks where there's no single height towers above the others and is the climber's ultimate conquest.
John Glen directed the last three Bond-Roger Moore pictures. He has an overwhelmingly "in-house" past, as editor, second-unit or action-scenes director of earlier Bond flicks. His skill for individual special effects sequences, is dazzling. His ability for an overall conception of his films, of structure and synthesis is not .To a well-plotted action film "The Living Daylights" is what a good stand-up comic's routine is to a classic, sophisticated comedy or farce.
The movie floods you with a string of happenings, the way a compulsive talker overwhelms you by talking as rapidly and loudly as possible. You lose the point--if any--of the story, you miss the punchline, you get no clear image of the characters, no feeling for the director as an "auteur," no feeling for the screen creatures as anything more than puppets.
"The Living Daylights" has been ballyhooed as the first Bond where the hero sticks to just one lady, whether in response to the New Continence (AIDS, Neo-Conservatism) or for the sake of a new, more bonded Bond. This is not precisely true, as there's also the early, charming presence of the aforementioned yacht lady--but let that pass, since it is is overall obvious that Dalton's James is a great deal more Don Quixote than Don Juan,with most of the typical Bond sneers, leers and horizontal innuendoes gone.
Bully for Dalton, were it not for the choice of his paramour. Kara Milova (Maryam d'Abo) plays a Czech cellist in a symphony orchestra. For obscure reasons she has to double as a sharpooter. She is a clone of Nastassia Kinski at her inexpressivest, cloyingest, and pallidest. If the new Bondian monogamy is supposed to strike a blow for feminism too, Kara is not the right spokeswoman: she merely plays fifth fiddle to James, and in her passivity (during a fight she dumbly stands there for aeons before using a frying pan on a villain) she reinforces the machoism of Bondism. There was more feminism, for example, in a sex-laden opus like "Never Say Never Again" (Connery's last Bond of 1983), where gorgeous, evil , snake-throwing, explosive Barbara Carrera had an assertive, initiative-taking presence that gave Connery a run for his gray cells and his hormones.
With its lack of character development and overall structure "TLD" is less than the sum of its parts, but it can still be fairly entertaining if you don't expect a Bondian revolution. Some of the supporting roles are good, notably the Dutchman Jeroen Krabbe's (he was recently the heavy in "No Mercy") who, as the KGB defector, keeps playing roles within roles. Very good too is the German Andreas Wisniewski (unknown to us, unless you've seen "Gothic") as the Walkman strangler. Both men wear their hair flat, a sure clue that helps you spot movie villains these days.The more familiar John Rhys-Davies (as General Pushkin) does little that stands out, but Joe Don Baker, the corrupt yet infantile arms-and-drugs dealer, hams things up with unbridled bliss and is like a caricature of Jonathan Winters playing a demented General George S. Patton.
[Published August 21,1987]